Dennard, Brazeal 1929–
Brazeal Dennard 1929–
Brazeal Dennard is the leader of the acclaimed Brazeal Dennard Chorale, a renowned group of vocalists with a repertoire of African–American spirituals. Formed in 1972 in Detroit, the Chorale has gained national recognition for its work in an area once overlooked by American musical scholarship. In recent years the Brazeal Dennard Chorale has also premiered the choral works of contemporary African–American composers, and Dennard has launched a community chorus as well as a youth group. “I am two generations removed from slavery,” Dennard told Detroit Free Press writer Cassandra Spratling. “I grew up listening to the music that expressed our hopes and soothed our sorrows. It became a part of me. So in a sense the chorale is the link to our past and the youth chorale was established to make sure this work continues.”
Dennard, a native of Detroit, was born on January 1, 1929. His mother was an accomplished vocalist herself. Dennard attended public schools in Detroit and began piano lessons at the age of 11. His real musical education, he stressed, began in church. “I grew up hearing church choirs sing anthems and spirituals,” he said in the interview with Sprat-ling. “Socially, the church was the only place black people could perform. They weren’t allowed in the great concert halls of the country.”
After serving in the U.S. Army in the early 1950s, where he formed a choral group, Dennard took courses at Highland Park Junior College, located in a small enclave within the Detroit city borders, and then entered the music program at Wayne State University. Moving from the piano to voice, Dennard dreamed of a professional career as a tenor, but soon realized that opportunities for black males in the classical world were limited. “It was clear to me early on that a black tenor would have a hard time finding a job,” he said in an interview with Desiree Cooper in the Detroit Free Press. “I decided that if I couldn’t work as a singer, I would prepare others who someday would.”
Dennard went on to earn a graduate degree in music education and began teaching in Detroit public schools in 1959. He eventually headed the district’s music education department, after taking his Northwestern High School choir through some award–winning years in state competitions. Over the years, Dennard had also been involved in various other musical groups, including serving as his church’s choirmaster. At the suggestion of his wife, Merdice, he founded his Chorale
Born January 1,1929, in Detroit, Ml; son of Ezekiel and Bertha (Brazeal) Dennard; married Merdice Vallery (a singer), 1959 (died, 1988). Education: Attended Highland Park Junior College, 1954–56; Wayne State University, B.S., 1959, M. Mus., 1962. Military Service: U.S. Army, corporal, 1951–53.
Career: Detroit Public Schools, music teacher, 1959–71, head of fine arts department, 1971–83, music supervisor for school district, 1983-89; founder of the Brazeal Dennard Chorale, 1972; Wayne State University, adjunct faculty member, 1984–; Detroit Symphony Orchestra, member, board of directors.
Memberships: Michigan Council for the Arts, former chair, music advisory committee; National Association of Negro Musicians, president, 1975–79; Detroit Musicians’ Association, president, 1974–88; National Endowment for the Arts, member of chorale panel, 1985–87, Arts in Education, member of chorale panel, 1986–88.
Awards: Distinguished Alumni Award, Wayne State University, 1986; Choral Performance, American Choral Directors’ Association, 1989; Distinguished Achievement Award, Arts Foundation of Michigan, 1989; Outstanding Service Award, Detroit Public Schools, 1989; Vocal Teacher of the Year, Michigan School Vocal Association, 1990.
Addresses: Home— 4330 Fullerton, Detroit, Ml 48238.
in 1972. Writing in the Detroit News, columnist Betty DeRamus noted that 1972 was a tough year for the city: entire blocks were still devastated five years after the infamous Detroit riots had shut the city down; Motown Records announced it was relocating its headquarters to Los Angeles; and 601 homicides were recorded within the city limits. When Dennard put out word that he was seeking singers for a choral group, he was surprised by the number of responses he received. “That was probably the catalyst for the success of the initial formation,” he told DeRamus. “People were really looking for something to hang on to. In difficult times, people always turn to music.”
Over the next few years, the Brazeal Dennard Chorale garnered accolades and a stellar reputation. As an ongoing professional organization, it has performed six to ten concerts per year, and has four dozen men and women members. Singers have included Detroit–area residents from all walks of life, from police officers to physicians. To the latter category belongs Silas Norman, the brother of American opera star Jessye Norman. Dennard has culled his repertoire of African–American spirituals from research he conducted in the archives of historic black colleges such as Fisk University. In an article published in the Lexington Herald–Leader, Colleen Long explained the significance of such songs, handed down from generation to generation by those who were forbidden to read, write, or otherwise transmit their cultural heritage. “The spiritual style of music has roots in Africa, as folk songs sung during work, worship and entertainment,” Long wrote. “During slavery, spirituals evolved into songs expressing deeply held religious convictions, especially for converted Christians.” Long added that such spirituals “also reflected longings for freedom, often hidden within song lyrics. In “Blow Your Trumpet, Gabriel,” for example, the singer asks the angel ‘to blow me home/To my new Jerusalem.’”
Dennard has also formed two adjunct groups, the Brazeal Dennard Community Chorus, which began in 1985 as a less formal amateur group, and the Brazeal Dennard Youth Chorale; both serve as a training ground for future professional Chorale members. The main group has appeared on recordings, but Dennard claims he is proudest of the partnership forged with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). In 1976 the DSO began a “Classical Roots” series of concerts in its season program, which featured works by African–American composers and performers. The Brazeal Dennard Chorale has performed regularly with the DSO, delivering such works as Adophus Hailstork’s “Done Made My Vow,” a cantata for choir and orchestra with a civil rights theme.
After retiring from the Detroit Public Schools in 1989, Dennard continued his work as an adjunct faculty member at Wayne State University. He has been involved in several arts organizations, including the Michigan Council for the Arts and the National Association of Negro Musicians, and served on panels for the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1980s. Honors accorded him include the Vocal Teacher of the Year award from the Michigan School Vocal Association and the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Arts Foundation of Michigan.
Dennard is pleased that in the thirty years since he founded his Chorale, and in the fifty years since he eschewed a professional singing career, much has changed. The DSO’s Classical Roots series has been copied by other American symphonies, and black spirituals and works by African–American composers are not uncommon in the classical music programs of American civic orchestras. A group similar to his Chorale, the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble, was founded in 1986. “That makes me extremely proud,” he said in the interview with Spratling. “We have been able to preserve a very important part of our heritage.” In early 2002, Dennard traveled to New York City to see a former student of his, tenor Kenneth Tarver, perform with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. As he told Cooper in the Detroit Free Press, “I’ve lived long enough to see my work come full circle.”
Detroit Free Press, January 5, 1997, p. IF; June 6, 1997, p. 1C; June 14, 2002.
Detroit News, May 20, 2002.
Grand Rapids Press, December 31, 2001, p. B2.
Lexington Herald–Leader (Kentucky), October 20, 2001, p. Cll.
Brazeal Dennard Chorale, http://www.singers.com/choral/brazealdennard.html (August 21, 2002).